Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a musical based on Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with music and lyrics by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman. In keeping with the setting of the novel, Big River features music in the bluegrass and country styles.
The original Broadway production opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on April 25, 1985. It ran for 1005 performances and was nominated for ten Tony Awards. It won seven, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score.
A critically acclaimed revival of Big River opened on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre on July 24, 2003. This production, staged by the Roundabout Theatre Company and Deaf West Theatre, was exceptional in that it featured both deaf and hearing actors performing together. About half the characters, including the leading role of Huck, were played by deaf or hard-of-hearing performers. All dialogue and lyrics in the production were both spoken or sung and signed, making the production equally accessible to hearing and deaf audiences. The character of Mark Twain was expanded, so that that actor also provides the voice of Huck, who is portrayed by a non-hearing actor. In fact, Twain was performed in the revival by Daniel H. Jenkins, who created the role of Huck in the original Broadway cast.
The production was nominated for three Drama Desk Awards and three Tony Awards, and won one of each; the 2004 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Director of a Musical and the 2004 Tony Honor for Excellence in Theatre. It was remounted for a U.S. tour in 2004, and was nominated for several regional awards for excellence.
The Overture sets the scene: the sound of a harmonica quickly joined with a guitar transports us to pre-Civil War Missourah. The rhythms convey the turbulance of the water ahead, and it comes to a conclusion on an uplifting note — forshadowing the nature of our story.
"Sometimes it seemed like the whole blame town of St. Petersburg was telling me who I should be." Huck was right. Between the "Widder" Douglas and Miss Watson, Judge Thatcher, and even his best friend Tom Sawyer, everyone has their opinion about how Huck should comport himself. Do You Wanna Go to Heaven? they inquire. "You better learn your readin' and you better read your Bible or you'll never get to Heaven 'cause you won't know how."
Exasperated with the constraints on his daily life, Huck escapes his bedtime and steals to the hideout of his best friend, Tom. In the cave, The Boys sing of all the escapades they'll perpetrate on their way to "the bad place."
Huck returns home in the darkness and tells us that he is Waiting for the Light to Shine. He finds his Pap waiting for him, who drags him off to his cabin in the woods. In his drunkenness, Pap swings from tomfoolery to extreme violence as he rails against a Guv'ment that would take his son from him. He attempts to take Huck's life, and passes out in an inebriated mess.
Huck, realizing his chance to escape, kills a pig and scatters the blood and gore around the cabin in an effort to make it appear as if he's been murdered. Huck is being quickly forced to grow up, while Tom sings Hand For the Hog — a typical Roger Miller tune — in every attempt to remain a kid.
Alone on Jackson's Island, Huck asserts his self-assurance: "I, Huckleberry, Me, do hereby declare myself to be nothin' ever other than exactly what I am."
But, perhaps Huck isn't alone. Miss Watson's slave, Jim, is there as well. He has run away to avoid being "sold down the River" to New Orleans. Growing up faster by the second, Huck offers to help Jim reach freedom in the North. A posse is after Jim: with only moments to spare, they find a raft and get it afloat in the Muddy Water of the Mighty Mississip.
Jim and Huck travel only at night and don't get far from Jackson's Island before they are reminded of the seriousness of their actions: a boat carrying runaway slaves back to their masters passes them in the night. The fugitives don't move a muscle as they hear the slaves sing of The Crossing, of moving away from — not toward — freedom.
The days are long as they forge their way down the river. They narrowly escape capture and a collision with a steamboat, and, in a fog, sail past the mouth of the Ohio — their path to freedom. Oblivious, they sing of the beauty of the River In the Rain — one of the most memorable moments of the show — under a canopy of stars.
As they finish their paean to the beauty of the River, they are set upon by the King and the Duke — two con artists who commandeer the small raft as they escape the latest mob on their tail. For many of the same reasons Huck is drawn to Tom, he is intrigued by the delinquents in his midst. The "royals" sing of what happens When the Sun Goes Down in the South, while Jim pines away for his Muddy Water as the curtain falls.
Huck, the Duke, and the King have embarked upon their first sham. They have washed ashore in Bricktown, Arkansas, and attempt to fleece the rubes they find. The Duke regales them of the evening's entertainment: The Royal Nonesuch, a human oddity. By the end of the evening, Huck can appreciate a new way of life — the three are now several hundred dollars richer.
When he returns to the raft, he plays a horrible trick on Jim by assuming the guise of a slave hunter. Unamused, Jim rebukes Huck for the first time. After some thought, Huck realizes that Jim, though a slave, is still a human being and deserving of an apology. They realize that for all of their friendship, they are still Worlds Apart.
The King and Duke never allow Huck to fully re-enter his humanistic world, and they reappear to dragoon Huck into their next escapade. While Jim is, again, left alone with the raft, the three encounter a Young Fool on a dock, singing of his love of Arkansas. Through no fault of his own, he tells the con men everything they need to know about a fortune to be inherited in the Wilkes family, and as Arkansas segues into How Blest We Are, the criminals enter the funeral and go about securing their riches.
Huck — through it all a pure soul — sees that the beautiful and innocent Mary Jane Wilkes is being robbed of her rightful inheritance by these "rapscallions", and steals her money from the King and the Duke. He quickly stuffs the gold into her father's coffin and hides behind it to avoid notice. She tells her dead father, "If you think it's lonesome where you are tonight, You Oughta Be Here with Me."
When Mary Jane realizes what Huck has done, she asks that he remain with her and become her friend. For the first time in his life, he is moved by the actions of another, yet he realizes that he has made a promise to Jim: one that transcends mere friendship. Center stage, caught halfway between Mary Jane and Jim, the three come to understand that Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go.
Huck returns again to the raft and finds the Duke tarred and feathered: he has sold Jim back into slavery for a mere forty dollars. Feeling guilty about what he has done, Huck pens a letter to Miss Watson, telling her where she can find the runaway Jim. After a momentary reprieve, Huck ends up feeling worse than ever. He tears up the letter and delivers one of the classic lines of American Literature: "All right, then, I'll go to hell!" He resolves to free Jim, again, expressing himself in an uptempo reprise of Waitin' for the Light to Shine.
After a series of plot turns, Tom shows up and decides to help Huck free Jim from his captors. They find him imprisoned in a tiny cell, and work quickly to free him. Huck and Tom get him out of the cell, and Jim declares that he is Free at Last, though conveying the knowledge that he understands that this may never truly be the case.
At the end of the play, Jim has decided to continue his trek to the North that he may buy his family out of slavery and Huck decides to move out West to escape any attempts to "civilize" him, they sit for a moment at the banks of the River. They recall their adventures together, and reflect, again, on the River in the Rain. Jim leaves Huck alone for the last time, and Huck decides, "It was like the fortune Jim predicted long ago: considerable trouble and considerable joy."